Motor and perceptual sequence learning: different time course of parallel processes

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The aim was to determine the extent and time course of motor and perceptual learning in a procedural learning task, and the relation of these two processes. Because environmental constraints modulate the relative impact of different learning mechanisms, we chose a simple learning task similar to real-life exercise. Thirty-four healthy individuals performed a visuomotor serial reaction time task. Learning blocks with high stimulus–response compatibility were practiced repeatedly; in between these, participants performed test blocks with the same or a different (mirror-inverted, or new) stimulus sequence and/or with the same or a different (mirror-inverted) stimulus–response allocation. This design allowed us to measure the progress of motor learning and perceptual learning independently. Results showed that in the learning blocks, a steady reduction of the reaction times indicated that – as expected – participants improved their skills continuously. Analysis of the test blocks indicated that both motor learning and perceptual learning were significant. The two mechanisms were correlated (r=0.62, P<0.001). However, their time course was different: the impact of motor learning increased strongly from earlier to later intervals, whereas the progress of perceptual learning was more stable but slower. In conclusion, in a simple visuomotor learning task, participants can learn the motor sequence and the stimulus sequence in parallel. The positive correlation of motor and perceptual learning suggests that the two mechanisms act in synergy and are not alternative opposing strategies. The impact of these two learning mechanisms changes over time: motor learning sets in later and becomes relevant only in the course of training.

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